There was only one realistic path for LSU to get back into serious at-large discussion for an NCAA berth.
That's right, a mere three weeks into the season, the Tigers' March hopes were already reeling, barring a 14 or 15-win SEC campaign. Last week changed all that, and now, LSU is in as strong a shape as anyone not named Kentucky in the league to score a bid to the big dance.
The truth is, there was no more valuable two-game winning streak out there on the schedule than the blowout romp over UMass and the gritty comeback effort at West Virginia.
Both teams are currently top 50 RPI teams. WVA will likely be parked in the 20-25 range of the polls most of the year, as they tangle with Big 12 heavyweights like Kansas, Texas and Iowa State. UMass isn't quite the No. 6 seed it was last year but the Minuteman are likely a fringe bubble team or strong NIT team in a deep Atlantic 10.
With the SEC already deep into another underwhelming season, there aren't many marquee wins to be had once league play hits. In fact, the toughest two-game stretch LSU has in conference play would be Texas A&M and Florida. Twice. This isn't a gauntlet by any means. ]
The flip side of that is LSU absolutely NEEDED the wins last week. After two disheartening losses in the Paradise Jam to some mediocre squads, morale was already low in the fan base. Faith in Johnny Jones was waning. There wasn't much reason to believe in this team, not just judging by the results but in the lackadaisical basketball on display.
More than anything, the way the team won bodes well going forward. Against UMass, the backcourt was clicking on all cylinders, with Josh Gray flashing his scoring potential and Jordan Mickey locking down the lane with five blocks in an absolute smashing of a team that will play in the postseason. In Morgantown, LSU overcame some awful turnovers, Mickey's foul troubles and some awful intros and outros to halftime to win against a likely NCAA Tournament team in a hostile environment.
Those two accomplishments are arguably better than anything LSU did last season. And now, it's the portion where they get to take care of business, which we have yet to see LSU really do this year.
The next five opponents? Sam Houston State, at UAB, Charleston, Southern Miss and Savannah State. Yuck.
None of those teams are in the top 125 of the RPI, and they average around the 210s. There should be no need to wonder about any of these games. Southern Miss lost a senior-laden roster and their head coach from last year's 29-7 NIT quarterfinalist team. UAB is 3-6 and nowhere near the team that pushed LSU for a bit in the PMAC.
So after an opening struggle with Gardner Webb, a grind with Weber State and 2nd-half battle with McNeese State, the Tigers need to start putting away opponents that, honestly, aren't much worse than the bottom half of the SEC right now.
LSU has the wins it needs going forward. I'm not worried about the Tigers winning these games. That's almost beside the point. Get your house in order now - whether that's in playing-time rotations, taking care of the ball, finding a consistent 8th and 9th man off the bench or staying healthy.
If they do that against these teams, first pitch won't be the only thing LSU fans will have to look forward to come 2015.
How are y'all feeling about the hoops team at this point? Will they have your attention once SEC play rolls around?